Where the word green took on a new meaning, where every step was an achievement, where your breathing was music to your ears, welcome to the Tirthan Valley Great Himalayan National Park Trek.
It was a motley group of trekkers, some of us newly inducted into the world of trekking, some who love doing it and hate everything else and some who were taking the plunge for the first time.
We had to catch a bus into Mandi from ISBT and as usual I was running around trying to complete my work before disappearing into oblivion for the next three days. After hastily changing into my trekking gear in the office basement, Gigi - always the saviour- gave me a ride into the nearest metro station. Dressed in my shorts and carrying my rucksack, I was feeling out of place in the ocean of office goers coming back from their daily drudgery, waiting for the metro to carry them back to their homes. I was impatient to get away from all that the city stands for, board the Volvo from Kashmiri Gate and drive into the much awaited, highly recommended jaunt into the valleys of Himachal.
Boarding the metro with Ritvij, my colleague, the organizer of the trek and a very dear friend, we started counting the stops to our destination, from where the journey would start. We met Sudha, my best friend (…and definitely my better half) at the Kashmiri gate, metro station, and ran for our Bus which was scheduled to depart for Mandi. After a customary shake of hands and introductions with the rest of the group we boarded the bus.
It’s almost as if you are whisked away to another world, you can see the mountains, hear the noise of the river rushing through the valley and smell the fresh green grass. But wait, we are still in the bus and I am in my dreams!!! We stop for our customary breaks for dinner and breakfast, before catching a tempo traveler the next day morning from Mandi. By now the initial apprehension within the group of strangers has thawed away we now know each other’s name. I meet Wakeel, who’s the Man-Friday for the trek, Bikat’s first employee a certified mountaineer and Nilu our cook.
We reach Gushaini by Friday morning at 10:00 am and the trek began. This is the second occasion when I was trekking with the Bikat’s and after my “death by exhaustion” experience in the previous climb to Har-ki-Dhun I was decently prepared, thanks to my training for ADHM.
As you start walking, immediately the noise of cars, the fume of trucks and the traffic on the road gives way to a calmness, which cannot be described in words. The gushing noise of the river, the chirping of the birds and the noise of the forest engulfs you, as if you have fallen through a hole into another world, a world of languid green. The first days trek is from the village Gushaini to Rola, around 9 kms along the river Tirthan. The monsoon had painted the valley a deep green with its brush and our group of trekkers began the journey.
The first day required us to traverse 8 – 9 kms with a gentle gradient and all of us began walking at our own pace. The thing I love most about these treks, the introvert that I am, is that it gives you an opportunity to cut yourself away from the rest of the world and lose yourself in the moment.
As I kept walking I realized that I had taken a path and gone ahead, whereas the others were waiting at a point where the road forked. I had to retrace my steps back only to realize that the path was the right one.
The Tirthan meanders through the valley and in certain pockets there are very beautiful waterfalls which form … and you feel like taking a plunge in the clear blue water. Soaking in the sights of the valley, I walked along the Tirthan and we reached a small village on the way. There we got a chance to taste the juice of the burans flower, which is the rhododendron species found in the valley. The taste and freshness of the juice still lingers in my palate and it was the perfect antidote for our tired legs and the walk ahead. After the refreshing juice we were supposed to stop at mobile point for our packed lunches. It was a beautiful spot with a small shed for people to rest their tired legs and enjoy the view of the whole valley spread beyond, a feast for the eyes. Some of us, who reached the spot earlier, rested and had our food at mobile point. After resting for some time there and as the other members of the group walked in, some of us started the remaining walk to Rola, our campsite for the evening. Unlike the previous treks, where the cold and exhaustion had taken a toll on me the trek today was a walk in the park, literally. We reached our campsite in the afternoon and waited for the rest of our group to trickle in.
The campsite was by the river and there were huts built for our porters to put in their stuff and arrange for a make shift kitchen. Our cook got into the act while all of us started putting in place our tents which would be our homes for the next 2 nights. It’s really exciting how a small bundle of cloth and nylon grows up to be a large tent in which three full blown adults can comfortably stretch their tired limbs. The tents, mats and the sleeping bags are our home, a change from our air conditioned bedrooms and away from all day to day comforts which we are used to. But surprisingly, you do not miss the so called necessities of life, when you go to sleep after a long days walk.
After putting up our tents and having a cup of warm tea… the porters put on a fire, and slowly all of us started gathering around the bonfire. Bonfire - a word we use so frequently, and when I looked up the meaning somewhere it said ‘a fire expressive of joy‘, an apt description of our emotions that day. With the bonfire warming up people and putting some life back into their tired legs, conversations became more lively and animated. Having spent a day together now, we were pretty comfortable with each other and were getting to know each other. Conversation gave way to songs and the valley echoed with old Hindi music and some Sufi couplets.
In moments like these, I fall into a space of my own, away from everything, lost in the million stars in the sky, in the huge expanse of the valley and I realize how fortunate I am to be able to experience and treasure all this and more. With the music, we had fresh trout from the Tirthan and being a true blood Oriya, devoured a whole lot of fish when the others were concentrating on which song to sing next. With the day coming to an end we had our dinner and went into our tents for a good night’s honest sleep, expectant of what awaits us tomorrow.
With each new day comes its own set of challenges. Some of us are raring to go into the wild, some are a bit apprehensive, some downright scared and a few have decided that enough is enough. After getting up, freshening up in nature’s lap and hungrily lapping up our breakfasts, we were ready to go. We packed our sleeping bags and tents, and set on for the climb. The vegetation getting into the mountains was becoming greener and thicker. It was almost a vertical climb on the face of the mountain. After a few steps, it was as if we were consumed by a world of green. It was difficult to see a few steps ahead of us due to the dense foliage, and the track was non-existent. Our guide Basant, guided through the initial phase and once we got used to the surroundings it was a beautiful climb in the woods.
All around us the sound of crickets, the chirping of birds and the greenery was beautiful, as if we were in another world. I had started walking with the rest of the group in a single file, but gradually I was alone as people picked up their own individual paces. It was a really steep climb and after an hour, we rested under a rock with the porters. The porters who are locals from the area are in their elements in a climb, walking up the hills as if it’s a stroll in the park where the city bred strive and toil for every inch. After a brief rest we resumed again and I picked up the pace. I wanted to reach the top and enjoy the view, because as we kept going higher the view of the mountains in from of us became clearer and more beautiful. The best thing about the walk was as we took a turn away from the face of the mountain the sun would shine through the dense tree cover and its rays would rejuvenate us to walk ahead. When today I think back and look at this moment all I remember is the vast expanse of the horizon, the deep rolling valley and the green meadows of the mountains in from of us and a feeling of pure calmness. It is this feeling of calm, which keeps pulling me back to the mountains and I will always be grateful to Ritvij for introducing me to this new world.
But coming back to day 2 and the climb to Shilt, the mountains really demanded all our resolve as the climb was continuous and unforgiving. I finally reached the Shilt hut after a long climb and some of our friends had already reached. We immediately picked up spots, put some mats and fell asleep in the sun, a relief after the climb. A warm cup of tea was all that was needed to freshen us up and as rest of the group started to trickle in with all their stories, the whole atmosphere in the camp was of a sense of accomplishment. We had set up tents for the day and the porters and the cook had set up the bonfire and all of us gathered around the fire to sing and dance like last night. But the rest of the night was another story, for another day……
After the adventures of two days of climbing, the third day beckoned. We had to climb down the distance we had covered in two days. We started the day after a refreshing breakfast and the descent was beautiful. We started with the views of the mountains in front of us and the meadows, and as we covered some distance we were back into the dense green foliage of the valley. The porters while going down run on the way like hares, fast and nimble and I tried to copy them thinking it would be fun. I fell down like a million times on the way, but the thrill of running down the mountain with nothing to stop you was exhilarating and after some time my legs just kept on the tempo, even when the mind was asking it to take it slow.
Through all these three days, my ‘constant’ was the feeling of peace which was always there with me. Whether it’s a climb, or a descent, you are always alone with the elements. How far you can walk, how high you can climb, how strong your legs, are the questions nature asks from you. You are far away from your daily existence and your mind dwells on thoughts that you don’t grasp in the daily life you live. You are away from the claustrophobic masses of cars, there are no skyscrapers, there are no WhatsApp messages flooding your inbox, no smartphones to lure you into their world of apps. It’s just you and the world as it is, a rare moment of solitude.
We finally reached Gushaini and the sense of completing another trek was a satisfying one, back into the daily chaos, but stronger and fresher with the air of the Tirthan.